You’re listening to the Mark in Russia broadcast # 073, and I’m Mark.
Today I’m going to continue with my Life in Russia series and I’ll concentrate mainly on public transportation, it’s actually a continuation of where I left off last week.
You really should go to my website at: www.markinrussia.com to listen to this, or at least open the page to read the show notes, regardless of where you are listening to this. The reason for this is because the show notes also include several photos to help you get a better idea about what I’m talking about.
Last week I spoke about the transport situation 11 years ago, where I was living at the time. Today I’ll speed through the future a bit in order to bring us to the present time. Something that hasn’t changed much, as least to the average person, is the so-called Chelyabinsk metro.
This metro was first planned in the 1980s as part of a national plan that all cities with more than one million people should have metros. Now, I’m not exactly sure of the start date of the metro, but I think that it was sometime in the late 1980s. On my website I have a map posted of the Chelyabinsk metro and it seems to serve the city well, with one minor hitch; it doesn’t yet exist. Well, perhaps I should correct myself here because we’re told that it does exist, in part anyhow, but because it isn’t open and people can’t see it, for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t yet exist.
One of the big problems with such a large span of time elapsing between the original plan and the present time is that the main purpose for it at the time of planning, is no longer valid. The first line, which is still under construction, starts in an area near a formerly huge tractor factory (they also built bulldozers and also at one time, tanks) and ends at only the very beginning of what is now referred to as a “bedroom” district, meaning little to no industry and chiefly envisioned as a place where workers would live. So in a planned economy of Soviet times this was a very logical route. Bring the workers from their homes to the factory and back again at the end of the shift. However, the factory is now a fairly small scale operation and I suspect that most of the small numbers of employees now live in the same area as the factory. I happen to live in the “bedroom district”, but not at the beginning of it where the line currently under construction will end. I live about ¼ of the way into this district and from the metro terminus to my place would be a bad area to get other types of public transport. In terms of the opposite terminus, I personally only go to that area maybe once a year max.
What I’m trying to say is that even when the first line of the metro opens, the stations it serves are not the stations that most would want. This is a damn shame because the road traffic has been steadily increasing with each passing year. A metro with some common destinations would be a real blessing. There are plans to extend the line further into the bedroom district at some future time, but judging from how long it has taken to still not have a metro, I suppose we’ll all be travelling by mind control when it is open.
When I first came to Chelyabinsk to live in 2001, there were two things that were slated to occur by 2003. One was the opening of the metro and the second was that McDonalds was planning to come to Chelyabinsk. I’m not sure if I remember which one I was more excited about.
Needless to say, 2003 came and went without a metro or a real Big Mac. The completion date of the metro was now stated to be 2005 and there was no further word on McDonalds. I was actually betting that the first McDonalds would open in one of the metro stations.
Well, 2006 came and so did McDonalds, but no metro, 2008 came and there was now a second McDonalds and thank my lucky stars, it was located about a 5-minute walk from my place, but still no metro. The opening date was now given as 2010. Well, I needn’t go on with this dateline, it’s now 2013 and we’re told that the metro will open in 2016. Frankly, I’m skeptical. Actually, I’m rather skeptical that the metro in fact even exists. I think that there are big holes at each end of the “supposed” metro line, into which workmen enter each morning. I think that there is just a big billiard club with free beer at each of these locations and just after the workmen finish sinking the last ball of the day on the table, they rub some dirt on their hands and faces and head for the surface again, thus giving the illusion of another hard day at work constructing the metro.
I did find a picture of the not yet completed Komsomolskiy Ploshad station, which is the first station and it looks pretty nice, but really, when you see a picture of a metro station or tracks far below the surface, these pictures could be taken at almost any other metro in the world, am I right? I mean, people have not yet seen the inside of the Chelyabinsk metro system, so how do we know?
Anyhow, go to my website and see pictures of this supposed Chelyabinsk metro station.
All in all, Chelyabinsk has trolleybuses, regular buses, trams, regular taxis and also something called “route taxis”. I’ll talk about these latter for a few minutes. In English we might refer to these as “shuttle buses” or “shuttle vans”, but these are typically used for transport between such major points as a city center to the airport. Here in Russia, these things are everywhere. Here they just follow a particular route all day and have numbers according to their route. They come in all sizes, at first they were all “Gazelle” vans (a Russian made brand), which were set up to seat about 13 passengers.
Eleven years ago these were not really even present, but now they are everywhere, just like ants. Typically the driver will be a migrant from one of the republics to the south of Russia; these usually end in “stan”. They can drive pretty crazy at times, and the blaring “chanson” music (kind of a popular music in prisons) can give you a headache, but you’ll reach your destination a lot earlier than on other forms of public transport. For the first several years they would only pick up as many passengers as they had seats, not they’ll pack these things to the top with people, and standing, or rather stooping in one of these things is not comfortable and also makes it a real pain in the ass for passengers trying to get off. All in all, in my opinion, they are a rather unpleasant experience. The entry door is a sliding door on one side of the van. Now imagine that one stops at your bus stop, the door opens and all you can see are two riders’ butts as they are stooped over in front of the door. Nobody is getting off, but somehow a couple of new passengers are trying to squeeze in. If you are in the least bit claustrophobic, there is no way you can ride one of these. Even if you aren’t, I think that there is about a 50-50 chance that you will be before long. As I mentioned, I never ride this style of route taxi. There have been too many accidents with these things and some with fatal results. I can say that the city is forcing these companies to discontinue the use of the “Gazelles” and switch to larger models.
There are larger route taxis that are actually mini-buses and these will seat about 21 passengers and also have aisles for standees with places to hold onto and plenty of headroom. When I ride a route taxi, it’s one of these that I ride in. The price for a ride on a route taxi is only about 3 rubles more than on regular public transport (about 10 cents) and the ridership is more often than not younger people, although it’s more common now to see a couple of pensioners on even these now.
Chelyabinsk has a fairly extensive number of tram routes. Although they don’t serve all areas, they are actually pretty good and serve the area where I live. There haven’t been any new routes added since I’ve been here, but neither have any been taken away. The ride is a bit bumpy in my opinion, but not overly so. Where I am most of the trams are older models, but they are gradually introducing newer models on some of the other routes. Trams are also nice because they are electric and don’t spew pollution into the city. While no doubt pollution is created when the electricity that they use is produced, but this is outside of the city and also away from large crowds of people and other pollution sources. The trams are also probably a bit warmer in the winter than some of the other forms of transport. Go check out the photos on my website of both old and new trams, along with photos of route taxis.
There are also a lot of trolleybuses in use in Chelyabinsk, although the price has been increasing and the frequency has been decreasing over time. Although the closest bus stop to my place is a major intersection for public transport, it is increasingly less frequent that I travel by trolleybus. I can never tell how long I’ll have to wait and the only one which went to my destination near work was cancelled about a year ago, so now if I go by trolleybus, I need to take two of them. Another thing about trolleybuses is that they always seem full of pensioners and therefore, it can range anywhere from difficult to impossible to get a seat. When I’m frequently using trolleybuses, I also find that at least one every two weeks the power grid for the system breaks down and you are stuck in a powerless trolleybus. What is truly amazing in these situations is that they will not refund your money.
Something that I should have mentioned is that there are no transfer tickets in Chelyabinsk, so the fact that, even though the two trolleybuses you take are headed into the city, you still need to pay full fare on both. This is a drag and also a reason to take a route taxi instead, provided that it is headed to your destination.
That now leaves us with buses to talk about. Gone are the days of the Ikarus buses and also all other old models that were in use when I first arrived here 11 years ago. The bus situation here is not half bad. The vast majority of buses are new or fairly new. They are all made in Russia, but you can see where they followed a western model. They have plenty of power, so they are no longer chugging up hills. They also no longer spew out huge clouds of diesel exhaust like the old ones did and in fact are actually pretty nice overall.
As I mentioned previously, I live in the “bedroom” district and work near the center, but although I work on a side-street just off the main thoroughfare, I work in the opposite direction from the center, right near the largest university in the city, which 50,000 students in total study at. After the cancellation of one of the trolleybuses, this route was no longer served by public transport, as unbelievable as this sounds in light of the university. Well, several months ago a white horse came to the rescue in the form of a new bus company and a new bus route. You know, I would never have believed that I would be singing praises about a bus, but here we go.
The bus is number 16 in one direction and number 15 in the opposite direction. These are all fairly new comfortable buses and the best part is that at my bus stop, I always get a seat. Additionally, the part of the route where I ride the bus, although it takes about 35 minutes, it is actually only about 20% of the total route length and fortunately for me, it is the least bust part of the route.
From my place the bus heads out of the bedroom district, but through the far side of it, it then travels over a dam and also through some nice pine forest. Most of the route is at a good speed without traffic lights and beats the hell out of bumper to bumper city traffic. I arrive at my work bus stop about 15 minutes faster than when I was travelling by trolleybus. The best part is that a new bus comes along about every 8 minutes during peak times and every 20 minutes during non peak times. I really like this new bus and especially the new route. You know, I arrive at work in a better mood than I did before.
Driving a car is of course also nice, but honestly, I don’t mind taking transport. When driving, even if you travel when the traffic is not as bad, you still need to find a place to park your car, and this can be a chore to do. Additionally, there is rarely a place where you live to park your car, and even if there was, it’s not safe to leave an unguarded car here over night. Don’t think that an alarm will save you also. These are always going off here and nobody pays attention to them at all. So, you typically pay to park your car in a guarded lot where attendants can keep their eyes on it, but you will pay about $65 a month for this. These parking lots never seem to be any closer than a 10 minute walk from where you live, and during the coldest nights of the winter, you’ll find yourself hauling your car battery home if you expect it to start in the morning. Remember, car batteries are not light; they are actually full of lead, so hauling these for 10 minutes in each direction is not much fun. In my opinion, it’s easier to just use public transport and don’t have to deal with parking or battery issues.
Well, I guess that this is a good place to stop on the issue of public transport. I hope that in some way it was either informative, or perhaps even mildly entertaining.
I’ll continue with the “My Life in Russia” series and hope to have a new episode posted next Monday. So, come back often and visit me here and I hope to see you next week, but until that time, GoodBye!